Look what we have here: not only a two-game SEC winning streak for the Vanderbilt Commodores but a realistic chance of beating Tennessee and playing their way into a bowl game.
By Matt Zemek
This is real, folks. This is not an embellishment or an exaggeration. No one could have possibly imagined this one or two weeks ago, but right now, it seems doable. No, it’s not likely, and we shouldn’t confuse what is probable with what is possible. However, Vanderbilt does have a real chance of beating the Vols this weekend in Nashville.
The obvious reasons: First and foremost, Hendon Hooker is done for the season with an injury suffered against South Carolina. Tennessee not having its Heisman Trophy contender on the field will matter to a certain degree. The main question is how much.
Second, Tennessee’s defense is clearly vulnerable. An improving Vanderbilt offense which has generated good numbers and clutch production over the past few weeks can definitely take a bite out of the Big Orange and give Tennessee the same stinging loss it dealt to the Vols back in 2016, when the Dores shoved UT out of a New Year’s Six bowl. Six years ago, Tennessee would have made the Sugar Bowl with a victory over VU, but the Dores would not stand for that. They can repeat history and improbably lift themselves into a bowl game at 6-6 under coach Clark Lea, who has built a ton of momentum for the coming offseason even if he doesn’t win this game. Vanderbilt football is clearly headed in the right direction. Let’s see what VU can do against Tennessee:
1 – Wright place, Wright time
Mike Wright is improving at quarterback. That’s what coaches and fans love to see at a rebuilding program: improvement every week. Wright has made timely plays and poised decisions in this two-game winning streak against Kentucky and Florida. If he can continue to play within himself and calmly execute, not getting caught up in the heat of the moment, Vanderbilt can score 30 against a Vol defense which was blowtorched by Spencer Rattler and South Carolina. Wright holds the main key to this game.
2 – Force Joe Milton to be patient
It’s true that Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel will likely start this game by having backup quarterback Joe Milton – in place of Hooker – throw some short passes to establish a rhythm and confidence. Vanderbilt doesn’t need to be too worried about short throws. If Tennessee is throwing a five-yard pass, that means it is not throwing a 25- or 45-yard completion. Vanderbilt just needs to tackle right after the catch and take away the deep shots Tennessee and Heupel like to hit once they set up the long ball with some route combinations and some fakes by receivers. Make Milton complete eight or more passes per drive in order to score touchdowns. Milton might make one mistake per drive; that’s all it might take to turn Tennessee into an inconsistent offense which settles for field goals and occasionally turns the ball over. That’s how Tennessee scores 30 instead of 50, which will give VU a chance against the weak Tennessee defense.
3 – Hidden yards and field position
Hendon Hooker led an ultra-explosive Tennessee offense which often rendered field position irrelevant. Tennessee could strike from anywhere on the field. With Joe Milton in, maybe that’s going to remain the case, but we have to see it, and VU should make Milton prove that field position doesn’t matter. If VU forces Tennessee to go 90 yards, Milton might not be able to generate enough production for the Vols. Vanderbilt needs to lengthen the field on defense and shorten it on offense, and see what happens.